Yosemite High Sierra Camps ◆ 6 Days ◆ 45.5 Miles (muleback)
And now for something different! With George on the doorstep of his September wedding, we decided to make it easy on both of us and skip the planning, packing, logistics and just have someone haul us around, feed us and set up our tents so we could goof off. About time! And the winning bid was from the Yosemite Hi-Sierra Camps by mule. Talk about posh. Best part was that our favorite Yosemite packer was leading the trip, none other than Sheridan King.
When you consider the odds of making it through the lottery to get a slot on any Yosemite Hi-Sierra Camp trip and then to get hooked up with a stellar cast of fellow travelers, the stars must have been aligned! George and I picked this time and place mostly to ensure that Sheridan would be our guide, however meeting Debbie and Dan, Izzy and Chris was to be another highlight of 6 days in the Yosemite backcountry. We all hit it off and quickly became the 'Sheridan Gang', a kinder gentler version of gentleman 'Black Bart' who successfully robbed stage coaches on their way to Yosemite in the 1870's. He never fired his unloaded shotgun, was able to pull off 27 holdups without a life lost and lifted enough loot to reside in San Francisco as a respected citizen.
The trip starts off at the Tuolumne Meadows stables under the watchful eye of the boss, Walker. He sizes you up the day before and has your appointed mule ready and waiting to take you across 44.5 miles of breathtaking terrain. These are the most sure-footed animals I have come across in many years of wilderness riding and my mount, Levi, seemed to be ready for the task. Well, about 25 minutes out he decided that enough was enough and that he was not going any further! A test of wills ensued and while I was able to get him under control, his stubbornness won out and he was replaced with Tonka, who fast became my favorite as he did not try to throw me off.
- Glen Aulin @ 7880 ft, established in 1927 with 8 cabins accommodating 32 guests (GPS- N37.90945 W119.41878)
- May Lake @ 9270 ft, established in 1938 with 8 cabins accommodating 36 guests (GPS- N37.84605 W119.49082)
- Sunrise @ 9332 ft, established in 1961 with 9 cabins accommodating 36 guests (GPS- N37.79537 W119.43258)
- Merced Lake @ 7216 ft, established in 1916 with 18 cabins accommodating 80guests (GPS- N37.73936 W119.40731)
- Vogelsang Camp @ 10132 ft, established in 1924 with 12 cabins accommodating 42 guests (GPS- N37.79505 W119.34518)
Named by James McCormick on the request of R.B. Marshall, he immediately suggested 'Glen Aulin' which means beautiful valley or glen and wrote it in a way so that it would be correctly pronounced. The camp was created in 1927 and has moved from the original location as the setting was mosquito infested. Good idea! Eight tents provide sleeping accommodations for 32 and the kitchen produces great meals. For both of my visits we were treated to a turkey dinner with all the trimmings. The camp is in a strategic location if you wish to make it a base and run day hikes nearby, such as Waterwheel Falls. Sunsets can be spectacular with just a quick walk from camp over the bridge and up a quick scramble off the trail that heads down Tuolumne Canyon.
The day starts with a hearty breakfast, you pick up your lunch and then the mules magically appear and it is time to move on. Today's destination is May Lake, which is the main water source for Yosemite Valley and is nestled below Mt. Hoffman, which is also the geographical mid-point of the park. Uphill is the word of the day and the mules are at their best with one stretch of switchbacks that reveals a panoramic view of the Pacific Crest, both north and south. The view at lunch was worth the price of the trip alone. We continued on to May Lake and arrived in time to take a hike up Mt. Hoffman.
George and I quickly changed and followed a well-marked trail that ascended quickly at the back of the lake, leveled out for awhile and then took another steep incline before reaching a plateau below the final ridge climb. A spectacular set of views of southern Yosemite, with the Pacific Ridge looming to the east, greets you. George made the peak with ease and I spent my time doing a bit of photography and had a amusing session with a curious marmot. After dinner we watched a nice sunset and later I returned with Dan to take some star shots. With a new moon, the skies were twinkling away and the Milky Way Galaxy was in all her glory. If you do go to May Lake set your watch to be up and out of the cabin for sunrise, as it pours into the lake and saturates the looming cliffs with golden hues and creates the bluest of skies. The camp was named after Lucy Maya Brown, wife of Charles Hoffman a topographer and cartographer for the Whitney Survey.
When moving from May Lake to Sunrise Camp, there is not much of an elevation change. However, it entails a descent of 1734 ft to Tenaya Lake, crossing H120 and an ascent of 1768 ft. When we got to the highway, I was amazed at drivers more interested in speeding then taking their time and enjoying the views and can see why bear fatalities are on the rise. This was the toughest day for the mules and I was glad they were taking me, as I would not have enjoyed that hike with a heavy pack. We stopped for lunch with a great western view of Clouds Rest, Half Dome and Mt Watkins. The final push to Sunrise takes you past the Sunrise Lakes which looks to be a good spot to spend the night if you are backpacking.
Once at the camp, George, Chris and I scrambled up Buck Dome to see the panorama of ridge lines all around. The camp is located in an interesting spot that gets you a backside perspective of well known peaks and features, with Matthes Crest taking center stage. Nestled above the meadow, it has a cozy kind of feel to it, yet the tents are not on top of each other. That night, we were treated to readings of John Muir, music by the Sunrise Quartet and another round of crystal clear starlight. Daybreak brought frost covered meadows and UFO skies.
Merced Lake and the inflow of Lewis Creek are great spots for swimming, sun worshiping and a bit of fishing. Of interest is the largest White Pine on record on the trail as you enter the camp, right next to the backpacker campgrounds. Standing 217 ft tall with a 39 ft crown spread and a 7 ft 4 in diameter trunk, this tree has a total volume of 3510 cubic feet! When John Muir first passed through here in 1872 he called it Shadow Lake in a letter to Mrs Carr, a botanist and mentor from his days at the University of Wisconsin. However, it was named officially as Merced Lake on the first edition of the Mt Lyell 30' map. Some earlier maps did not even show a lake, which is remarkable in that it is one of the largest in Yosemite. The nights are relatively warm at this lower elevation, after the last two camps, and George tried his luck fishing. Our 'gang' went on an after dinner stroll to help digest another filling meal and walk off some of the adult beverages that we consumed and caught up with George and his fish tales! What I really enjoyed here was the range of trees, vegetation and a pocket of Jeffrey Pines, my favorite tree, just above the camp. It reminded me of the Jeffrey Cathedral along the Huckleberry Trail above Relief Reservoir after crossing Grouse Creek. The sweet scent of vanilla infused the early morning air as I tried to capture the essence of sunrise before mounting up.
The move from Merced to Vogelsang is a 2833 foot climb and it is pretty much uphill all the way. Right after departing Merced Lake we took the FletcherDolphin Dome Canyon trail and started a steep ascent with our trusty mules and Tonka was up to the task. It was a beautiful day and on our first stop we had an incredible vista of Merced Lake and down into Little Yosemite Valley, with a straight shot at Half Dome. I was particularly impressed with the granite formations as we wound up the canyon following Fletcher Creek and George named a unique feature on the face of a dome as Dolphin Dome! I checked with a well respected Australian geologist (my cousin) and he confirmed that it was most likely caused by exfoliation where the layers of rock peel off as they weather away. After lunch the trail catches up to a classic glacial valley with green meadows, dramatic peaks on both sides and a good look at the Volgelsang Peak uplift. The mules huff and puff up the last climb, knowing that tomorrow is all downhill.
This camp quickly became my favorite for the soaring views and scenery, along with the alpine thrill you get at this altitude. I am definitely coming here to spend more days. The naming of the Vogelsang area is most likely in honor of one of two brothers, Alexander and Charles, both associated with Fish and Game in the early 1900s. In older German it means 'a meadow in which birds sing', which could fit the shoe also. However, it has a bit of irony to it as the predominant bird in the area is the Clarks Nutcracker and if you have ever heard them cackle, you would not classify that as " singing" . We finished the night with a meadow walk at midnight to ooh and aah at the Perseid meteor shower, and it did not disappoint.
Another year and another great trip. For those of you in suspense, George and Sarah were married on a typical Chicago day with their family and close friends sharing in the celebration. Mr and Mrs Naxera are doing well. Tune in soon for more antics and as always…
May our paths & errands meet
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